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May 21, 2008

New OECD Broadband Findings and Broadband as a Community Leadership Intervention Strategy

In advance of the Ministerial meetings in Seoul, South Korea (June 17-18), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has issued its latest findings (or the executive summary). The main finding that "broadband not only plays a critical role in the workings of the economy, it connects consumers, businesses, governments and facilitates social interaction," comes as relatively little surprise to readers of this blog. What does emerge is that public investments in broadband infrastructure among countries in the OECD is at or near the top of the public policy agenda for all of the top 10 economies (measured by GDP in US$). Unfortunately, as observers of the United States scene will know and most acknowledge, the American public policy agenda has been distracted by the three trillion dollar war in Iraq and Afghanistan (exceeding the twelve year war in Vietnam), the 'strong dollar policy' which has led to unprecedented pressure on the greenback and the tsunami outflow of investment by Asian, Middle Eastern, and Russian central banks and sovereign funds, and the sub-prime housing debacle. No wonder, we've heard almost nothing from the Presidential Candidates about strategies for competing and cooperating in the global economy and globalizing the world of skills and education.

Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Korea, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden led the OECD in broadband penetration, each with at least 28 subscribers per 100 inhabitants (pg 25). The United States was 15th. Over the past 3-4 years, the largest growth in broadband penetration in per capita terms was in the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Finland – countries that now lead the OECD in penetration overall (again the United States was ranked 15th in terms of 'growth') pg 29).

While the leadership in Washington continues its aimless exploration for a national broadband policy framework, states, regions, cities, and local communities need to be thoughtful and proactive in their investments in digital infrastructure. These local, regional, state investments represent an imperative to fully understand broadband policies as an intervention strategy inextricably linked to creating a and enabling a sustainable future. Until such time as communities articulate their willingness to take responsibility for their own future through local investment and creative engagement with broadband strategies, the United States and in particular parts of the country like the Great Lakes region are likely to suffer. As we debate the merits of private sector leadership versus public investments, we are driven to further distraction. These are not binary choices.

The $25m Knight Foundation investment with OneCommunity in Digital Universal Access through the Digital Center of Excellence (http://www.onecommunity.org/solutions/solutions.aspx?id=518) is premised on the assumption that there is indeed a ‘third way’. A third way of approaching the development of consensus around leveraging technology to attend to community priorities and the roll out of a broad macro technical network architecture across broad geographies. Thus far, neither city hall (government directed) nor privileging the private market have produced the digital town square of our common hopes. In a number of the cities where OneCommunity is engaged (and others who are working with similar assumptions about the DNA of the sustainable connected community), the third way is premised on a multi-tenant model of schools, libraries, healthcare facilities, universities, museums, public broadcasters, public safety, and various layers of government co-investing in a portfolio of wire and wireless infrastructure to deliver program and community priorities. This is an additive strategy where there is demonstrable opportunity for private public partnerships. The convergence of philanthropy, the public sector, the private sector, and well educated and articulate community stakeholders represents an emerging opportunity for important engagement and potential regional transformation.

In the case of OneCommunity, the focus on a tiered strategy at the infrastructure layer (multiple wireline and multiple wireless technologies) combined with a governance model that supports and is informed by networked leadership and economic development, and a funding model based on aggregation of internet services AND program and shared services has produced a viable model here in Northeast Ohio over 5 years. Aggregate bandwidth of the 150 organizations leveraging the bandwidth touching more than 1500 facilities and well over a million users has grown more than 100 fold in the past 5 years. Mobility and wireless connectivity has also exploded. Where 5 years ago there was basically no mobile wireless connectivity among the subscriber institutions, today, at any given time in the middle of the day more than 3000 wireless users are connected to wi-fi infrastructure in the area I know best which is the mesh and wi-fi deployments in Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland, and Cleveland around University Circle. The model is sustainable and is delivering access in one of America’s poorest cities and a research sandbox for one of the most sophisticated engineering faculty in the land at Case Western Reserve University (and everything in between).

Our experience suggests that there are dozens of cities and various stakeholders in those communities prepared to revisit the messy choreography of the ‘third way’ to enable the roll out of broadband connectivity as an ‘intervention’ strategy in support of broad public policy goals. Just this past week the Intelligent Communities Forum Immersion Group brought an international delegation of leaders from South Korea, Japan, Europe, Africa, and Canada. While we learned much from them, we also think there was genuine interest in our 'third way' model.

A patchwork quilt of such local and regional community networks provides a viable basis for stitching together a sustainable economic future in which the community both uses technology to address its highest priorities and has a meaningful sense of its owning or at least contributing to its own future.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
May 21, 2008

Posted by lsg8 at May 21, 2008 04:48 PM and tagged

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